Philadelphia, May 2013
You wake up to the sound of your 6 am alarm clock and slowly remember that this time you cannot press snooze. You begin asking yourself those essential questions you learned in your Kaplan 2013 GRE Premier: with 5 Online Practice Tests + DVD textbook: Did you get a good night’s sleep? Are you well-rested? Did you dream? How do you feel?
You try to act like it is any other morning – sipping from the water glass next to your bed, checking your IPhone to read the first emails of the day, rubbing the sleepies out of the corners of your eyes. But really you are analyzing every second spent before the 7:10 deadline when you need to leave the house to make it to the testing facility precisely 30 minutes before the 8 am scheduled start time. So you jump out of bed in fleeting disquietude, consider doing a fifteen-minute yoga routine, but opt for a simple swan-dive down to stretch your hamstrings. You waste no time getting dressed in the clothes you have already set aside as the most appropriate for potential fluctuations in room temperature, throw your favorite circle scarf in your pre-packed backpack in the case that an air conditioner happens to blow across your neck during the four hours of concentration, scan your bedroom for any last necessities, decide that make-up is completely irrelevant, and proceed downstairs.
It is 6:35. You force yourself to eat a bowl of oatmeal topped with raisins, bananas, almond milk, cinnamon, and ground flax seed even though you never eat the first hour you wake up because it makes your stomach stir. But otherwise you will not be allowed to eat for five hours and we all know that breakfast stimulates cognition. While the oatmeal spins in the microwave you put on a kettle of hot water and prepare two cups of tea: Ginger orange to settle your stomach for eating so early and green tea to start the caffeine flow to your brain.
Every action you take appears seemingly calm and collected, diligently following the prep book’s instructions. But really you already know that it is going to be one of those horrid days where only your poop is truly being honest, revealing just how uncomfortable you genuinely are.
You decide to eat outside on your back porch reasoning that the fresh air and early morning sun will impart inspiration and tranquility. With the first bite you wish you hadn’t included the ground flax seed. Ignoring your stomach’s rumblings, you go over the rules and terms you’ve been cramming into your head for the last few weeks written in color-coated inks. One page is labeled “MATH.” The other, “WORDS.” After a few minutes of scanning your notes, you switch to The New York Times and try to distract yourself with the Summer Movies issue. Three bites into your oatmeal you find yourself in the bathroom.
It is now 7:03 and your boyfriend who has so nicely agreed to drive you over to the facility wanders downstairs. He eats a banana – nothing more – sits across from you, and asks how you are feeling. You tell him you have anxious poop. He asks no further questions, half of him entirely disgusted and the other half completely understanding because we all know how our shit acts on days like these.
You go to the bathroom three more times before finishing your oatmeal and two cups of tea, scan the math equations one last time, and finally walk out the door at 7:14, where your boyfriend is waiting on his Vespa. You climb on his back, press your cheeks into his fleece pullover, and rest your hands on his belly as he begins the journey. You immediately start cracking jokes to ease your fear, simultaneously convincing yourself that the wind in your hair is the best wake-up strategy for standardized testing.
The ride is short. You look at your watch: 7:24, six minutes earlier than the recommended arrival time. You dismount the Vespa, gather your bag, do a little jig to pretend you are confident, thank the boy, and go inside. The building happens to be a majestic Philadelphia establishment with a huge atrium complete with antique Tiffany mosaics and a marble fountain. You scan your confirmation email and search for the exact location, then confusedly wander over to a tall man in a black suit and ask where the Prometric Testing Office is, simultaneously realizing that this is probably the first question he receives every single day.
The majestic building turns into a claustrophobic office space on the first floor. Grey hallways with no windows and scratchy carpet replace the luxurious fountain. You follow three clip-art created paper signs complete with fancy arrows to the door of the Prometric Testing Center, pause to access your degree of caffeination, decide satisfied, and open the door.
A thin woman in a baby blue t-shirt that contrasts her fake tanned skin sits at a wooden desk. The desk is clearly meant to look expensive and authoritative but was probably purchased from Home Depot and assembled with plastic screws. Only a computer and filing tray rests on its surface. The woman is probably in her late twenties but could pass for younger and has light brown hair that has been straightened for years so that it is now thin and without volume and perfectly moves with each rotation of her head. You walk toward her, turning to look at the scatterings of people dotting the room and observe two overweight women sitting in the very back row of chairs anxiously reading over their notes, a guy in flannel and square glasses doing an up-dog between rows of chairs, and a nicely groomed man in the front row calmly reading a GQ magazine. You approach the desk and politely state your name as the straightened hair woman pushes a clipboard toward you, tells you to sign in, then hands you a laminated policy sheet that you are instructed to thoroughly read over, sign, and return.
You sit down. To your right is an easel holding a large whiteboard listing the basic policies of the Prometric Testing Center. Too much text, in poor handwriting, is written on the board with oddly chosen words underlined in squiggles to emphasize their presumed importance. “Good luck!!!!!” is written at the very bottom, causing your anxiety to rise. You decidedly change your focus to the sheets in your hands that remind you that no food or drink is allowed in the testing room, that you will be subject to metal detection, etc. etc. Having already read the rules online in preparation, as recommended by your Kaplan 2013 GRE Premier textbook, you quickly sign the agreement, return it to the straight-haired woman, and ask where the closest bathroom is.
The key to the woman’s bathroom is attached to a pink 12-inch lined ruler (as opposed to the blue 12-inch lined ruler to the men’s bathroom). More clip-art created paper signs instruct you to the restrooms as you leave the waiting room.
The anxious poop is sustained as you begin to anticipate the next four hours of taking a test that accesses randomized writing, verbal, and math skills in a space championing gender stereotypes and outdated design tropes. You have already accepted that the test is required for graduate applications even though it goes against any educational or philosophical belief system you may have, but as you sit on the toilet and stare at the pink 12-inch lined ruler your observant-obsessed, art history mind goes into critical overload. Besides the pure act of waking up, no normalcy has taken place in the nearly two hours of your morning. But you are forced to push the thoughts away, take a deep breath, hope that this is the last of the anxious poop, and return to the waiting room, handing in the pink 12-inch lined ruler with attached key.
You return to your chosen seat and watch as the straight haired woman says the same line with the same inflection to each person who approaches her desk. When a person is cleared, the straight-haired woman robotically asks, “Insert Name.” (Pause) “Are you ready to proceed?” No one says yes or no. They just get up and go through the door to the next room.
You sit maybe four minutes before grabbing the pink 12-inch lined ruler to go back to the bathroom one last time. Hoping you have released all the liquids left in your bladder, you leave the bathroom, walk back into the room, lock up your belongings in bright blue lockers that remind you of High School Musical, and less than a minute later you hear, “Rachel.” (Pause) “Are you ready to proceed.” You get up and walk through the next doorway, not allowing your self to analyze the poster that reads, “Reach for Success,” as you turn into the next room, only wishing that your analytical writing section could criticize the hell out of the poster’s derelict symbolism.
An older woman with short blonde hair sits at a desk that looks like all the indestructible metal ones your grade school teachers used to cover in ungraded papers. You already like her better than the straight-haired woman as she asks for your ID with a non-robotic tone. To her right is a sealed off room wrapped in glass observation windows where people sit at small cubicles labeled with a large black number. The blonde lady reminds you of all the rules, handing you a pencil and paper and reinforces the fact that you are not allowed to bring anything other than your id and locker key into the testing room. You nod and agree and appear seemingly calm as she says, “Look into the camera,” and points her finger to a black device to your immediate right. You follow her finger with your eyes, raise your eyebrows in the anticipation of a smile, pondering if smiling is even appropriate for such an occasion, freezing in that thought before ever managing to part your lips, when the blonde lady says suddenly, “Okay. If you have any questions during the test just raise your hand. Good luck.”
Another woman with a metal detection wand promptly appears behind you. You are asked to stand, roll up your pant legs and roll down your socks, reach out your arms, turn around, repeat. “All good,” you are told as the door to the testing room with the glass observation windows opens and a chair is pulled out, computer turned on, and you are abruptly left alone in your number 12 cubicle.
The exam itself is not really the point. But the first hour of analytical writing goes well, comfortable in your customary state of typing away. At one point your mind considers the sweatiness of the keyboard, the rotation of nervous fingertips tapping away on the same 26 letters, and wishing the cubicles included a bottle of Purell. But you quickly brush the thought away and make it through that first hour without much distraction or worry or bladder calls or discomfort.
Then comes verbal reasoning section one; and halfway through the thirty minutes those two cups of tea come back to haunt you, pressing on your vocabulary filled brain in a biologically appropriate demand to pause. By the time it is over and the 60 second break begins you are daydreaming about the pink 12-inch lined ruler with attached bathroom key. But first you have to tackle quantitative reasoning section one. And as the “A is greater” vs. “B is greater” questions begin you are dancing that jig you never wanted to dance. Each question feels like a riddle to be solved before the bathroom door swings open in fantastic victory. In the mind of your bladder, time is acting leisurely and prolonged; and for the consideration of your educational future, time is behaving wanton and swift.
The section ends after you guess the last four questions in a state of utter panic, press agree to the 10-minute break, grab your id, walk through the door of the glass-lined observation room, back through the waiting room, past the straight-haired girl who is running her fingers through her thinning hair in complete boredom, grab the pink 12-inched lined ruler with attached key, leave the waiting room, take a right at the instruction of the printed clipart paper, and enter the bathroom.
You pee for over a minute. As your bladder rejoices at the barely prevented UTI, your mind maintains a timer so that you make it back to your seat before the 10-minute break elapses. You hurriedly return to the waiting room, pass off the pink 12-inch lined ruler to the next woman anxiously waiting, head back to the testing room, roll up your pant legs, roll down your socks, reach out your arms, turn around, repeat, then sit back in the number 12 cubicle to discover you have only been gone 6 minutes and 24 seconds.
The next three sections come and go, momentously subdued as the caffeine eases away and the initial nostalgia of clicking oval bubbles becomes tediously uniform. The anticipation of receiving your scores grows with each question, your mind losing focus on the paragraph dedicated to the scientific benefits of mold formation so that you have to read it three times before deciding which sentence the author would most agree to. The test becomes a machination of strategy, mundane and desiccate, with each question extracted of any creativity. With each new section the more exhausted you feel, the pressure behind your eyes growing as you remove your reading glasses and rub your eyelids, hoping the relief provides that extra, final-stretch push.
You finish the test entirely relieved it is over, completely in awe of the energy spent and lack of it maintained, and with a lackluster sigh, you rise to leave your cubicle number twelve and glass lined observation room. You sign out, walk past the “Reach for Success” poster, head to the bright blue lockers to grab your belongings, take one last look at the pink 12-inched lined ruler with attached key and walk out of the room.
You have anxious poop for the rest of the day, as you analyze the momentousness of the test’s passing and the fear of having to pay another 185 dollars to a corporate testing service only to relive the bladder trauma. You begin to recognize the physical exertion of the test and the complexities of your morning actions’ consequences. You reflect on the questions themselves and find them to not be abhorrent or unfair or outrageous, and instead realize what was so difficult was the physical discomfort, the fabricated unknown, the institutionalized loneliness.
And then you wonder how art history scholars would analyze the testing procedures and writing prompts, how artists would recreate that bland whiteboard with the squiggly underlines and “Reach for Success” posters, how curators would reconstruct the waiting room space, and how art critics would compare the pink and blue 12-inch lined rulers with attached keys, and ultimately ask why your performance on a randomized test is given more value than this individual thought.
GRE Day was written before the author received her official test scores.